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World Cup Thoughts – Day 15
France vs Poland and England vs Senegal
So we had two huge ties this time, setting up a cracker of a quarter-final. Let’s break it down.
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France 3-1 Poland
As I said yesterday, some teams are so good that they don’t need to attack.
This was a really competitive game in the first half. Both sides were creating good chances and it was a pretty end-to-end game. I was surprised by how poorly the French dealt with what had been a pretty nothing Poland side up until this point. Didier Deschamps fairly has a reputation as a “sufferball” manager, but that’s not what we’ve seen at all in this World Cup. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Deschamps hated this first half. Then right before the interval, Kylian Mbappé plays a through ball into Olivier Giroud that unlocks the game and gets France ahead going into the break.
The second half was pretty similar. Mbappé scored two incredible strikes from the edge of the box to make it look easy, but France were not great at creating chances. The Poland penalty at the end distorts things somewhat, but xG models called this as a close game.
Does it matter?
Those two Mbappé goals have a combined xG of about 0.15 (per FBRef). But that’s partly down to the choices he made. He, correctly, figured he could score by beating the ‘keeper from relatively low quality shots, but that’s not a decision he usually makes. Had he not gone for it, he could have driven further towards goal and created different kinds of chances for himself or others. The low xG total here is partly a reflection of Mbappé feeling like he just had the beating of Wojciech Szczęsny today. He made different choices than the models would suggest and he got it right.
Of course, you could argue that Poland made it difficult for him and forced him to take on those shots, which he scored brilliantly. But maybe he doesn’t score them on another day. He’s the best player at this World Cup, but no one scores those every time.
I was reasonably impressed by how well Poland dealt with France in their 4-4-2 shape. But it almost doesn’t matter what you do when their attackers are this good. Mbappé decided to turn it on. When you have Mbappé attacking the left channel, Ousmane Dembélé on the right, Antoine Griezmann pulling the strings from deep and Giroud tying the room together as a target man, there’s not much to do if they decide to turn it on.
Which is more than a little worrying from an English perspective.
England 3-0 Senegal
It’s taken a while, but have England found the right balance in the side?
It certainly didn’t look like it for most of the first half. Gareth Southgate’s side found it very hard to find any fluency. Aliou Cissé clearly watched the way USA stifled England by pressing hard in a 4-4-2 shape. England found it very hard to play through the midfield at all, often going back to the defenders and trying to hit it long. Jordan Henderson was particularly disappointing here, using the ball poorly and hurting the way England wanted to build up through the midfield.
Then it all clicked.
Harry Kane dropped a little deeper, and I think that really helps England play through teams. He hasn’t been prolific in front of goal, but I think he’s giving a much more complete performance at this World Cup than he did four years ago. England then benefit from the midfield selection, as Henderson and Jude Bellingham are making runs into the box. Kane plays a through-ball to Bellingham, who slides it over to Henderson to score. It’s one of the first time England really get to break into space and it changes the game for the second half.
The second goal isn’t too different, with Bellingham driving forward through midfield to pick out Phil Foden, who plays in Kane. The third indirectly comes from Kane dropping deep again, creating space for Foden to get down the left and put in a cross to Bukayo Saka.
Henderson does need to improve his pass selection in this shape. He completed 100% of his “short” (5-15 yards, about 4.5-14m) passes, which is obviously as good as can be. But only two thirds of his “medium” (15-30 yards) length passes found a white shirt. Liverpool have some pretty unique passing structures in a 4-3-3 shape, and I don’t think he’s quite adjusted to the different environment of England’s midfield. If he can just concentrate on playing it short rather than pinging it to a nonexistent Virgil van Dijk or a Trent Alexander-Arnold sitting on the bench, England should have the right midfield balance.
England were decent against Senegal, but it certainly helps when all three of your good chances go in the back of the net. France did the same thing, which makes this quarter final pretty nicely balanced.
Both Deschamps and Southgate have so far avoided really playing with the handbrake on, but this might be the match when they revert to type. I’ve been wondering whether Deschamps will drop Dembélé for an extra central midfielder to tuck in and make the team more solid. Blaise Matuidi was a crucial part of the 2018 World Cup winning side, tucking in and offering an extra midfield body from his left sided role, perfectly contrasting Mbappé on the right. This time, Mbappé has been moved over to the left, but Dembélé has played as an old-fashioned winger down the right, wanting to take players on and put crosses in. Unless he’s going to completely change the shape of the side (which worked out disastrously against Switzerland in the Euros last year), the most obvious way for Deschamps to go full Deschamps is to bring in someone like Eduardo Camavinga or Youssouf Fofana for Dembélé.
I think Southgate would like to see that happen, because England’s biggest challenge right now is covering all the space across Dembélé’s right flank over to Mbappé’s left. Some have suggested England should switch to a back three, which might be on Southgate’s mind, though I think it would be a big mistake. The question with that shape is whether it more often looks like a back three or a back five. If it’s a three, you risk Mbappé and Dembélé getting around the sides and killing you that way. If it’s a five, you risk getting sucked into your own third for long periods without an easy way to get up the pitch, similar to the Euro 2020 final against Italy. There is a time and a place for a back three, and I strongly believe this is not it. England should be defensive against France, but without sitting too deep and inviting wave upon wave of pressure.
It’s hard to look past France as the favourites for this one when Mbappé is playing the way he is. Still though, this should be a serious test for the French beyond which we’ve seen so far, and both teams should have to step it up to get through this one.